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079 - On Studying Beneath The Surface - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Why is it so hard to understand what we want, what will make us happy, and how to take the actions that will bring us there?
079 - On Studying Beneath The Surface - Moral Letters for Modern Times

I have been eagerly anticipating news of your trip to Iceland, Deuteros, so that I can hear what you have learned of that island’s unique geography. I am particularly interested to know how your trip to Fagradalsfjall on the Reykjanes peninsula has progressed, and what you’ve been able to discover about the volcanic eruption ongoing there. This slow moving and relatively quiet eruption is kind to the observer, allowing an unusually close approach. How different from the eruptions a decade ago of Eyjafjallajökull, which shot an ash cloud directly into the jet stream resulting in the closure of the entire European airspace and the greatest disruption to air travel in generations.

Did you know that we know less about what the core of our own planet consists of than we do the composition of distant galaxies? We train our eyes on the heavens that we may learn the mysteries of the universe, all the while standing on a mystery only incompletely grasped. We hypothesize a mostly solid inner core made of an iron-nickel alloy, though we believe there must be other elements in unknown quantities. The inner core is no cold stone, but burns with a temperature the same as the surface of the sun. A liquid outer core surrounds this fiery inner ball, hiding it partly from our probing. Cooling iron at the edge of the core flows in convection currents in the outer core, creating the magnetic field. A great mantle then ensues, topped by a thin crust on which we carry out our lives.

Volcanic activity can be caused by two tectonic plates diverging from one another, allowing hot mantle rock to ooze up under the thinned crust stretched behind the plates; or by two plates colliding, with an oceanic plate typically being pushed under a continental plate, creating magma at the wedge. Some geologists think that plumes sometimes rise from the core-mantle boundary, melting as they rise and creating volcanoes when plates drift across the plume. For all their fiery drama, most volcanoes happen out of human sight deep under the oceans. Because tiny Iceland perches over a rift in continental plates it has a wealth of volcanoes on display for curious eyes.

The study of philosophy for me is analogous to the study of the geology of the earth. The great volume of what makes us and drives us is hidden, and we spend our lives on the crust. The surface matter of our lives that all can see are but the tail end of hot, deep processes playing out unbidden and mysterious. Even when we probe within, our senses do not penetrate far and we are left to hypothesize about causes, motivation, and meaning.

Psychologists posit fundamental archetypes found in our collective unconscious, unknown but powerfully shared by all, like the intense hot core at the center of the earth. And just like our knowledge of the earth is meagre compared to what we know of the universe, what we understand of our motivations is a fraction of what we can observe of the consequences of our actions.

“What use is this meandering,” you ask, “and why should we bother with it?” I will tell you, my dear Deuteros, and let me go with the flow of my analogy a bit longer for this purpose. Just as we find it fascinating to study the flow of magma and explosive volcanic eruptions, because they seem to reflect fundamental forces and are elementarily dangerous, so is the study of human motivation and actions of vital interest. Why is it so hard to understand what we want, what will make us happy, and how to take the actions that will bring us there?

We continue in a long tradition of explorers when we take up these questions. It is an honorable inquiry and pursuit. You need not fear that everything valuable about human behavior has been learned, or that the lessons are permanent. Just like a cloud of volcanic ash can cover the landscape for thousands of miles hiding everything under a choking gray, the passage of time causes people to forget what their forebears have discovered and obfuscates basic truths. We geologists/archaeologists of the mind are sifting the remains of great thinkers, each discovery giving us a chance to both relearn what was once known and to make our own contribution to the sum total of human wisdom.

We too are likely to suffer the fate of all people, which is not only to die, but to be forgotten. The great majority are not widely known during their lifetimes, and what of it? Is it not preferrable to be anonymous during your lifetime though you do weighty things, than it is to have achieved temporary renown that fades almost as quickly as our tired and frail bodies? The former has lost nothing, while the latter supposedly progressed only to have the greater setback befall them.

I say our gaze is best directed to future generations, Deuteros, and it is to them that we shall speak. The ones who have gone before us are beyond aid. Those that currently share the roads with us are almost as hard to reach, because they have a thousand distractions for every core of truth we unearth to shed light on. Though our contemporaries are most welcome to sample what we have on offer, they have few reliable tools to separate the dishonest potions from the cure. The surest tool is time. Just like the once choking volcanic ash later turns into a blessing upon nothing more than the passage of time, enriching the soil it blankets with vital nutrients, so too time’s great sweep performs the function of separating the silly from the serious, the helpful from the hurtful.

Our good ideas will do the greatest good when they have stood the test of time and proven their worth after careful, considered reflection. We ourselves sift the wisdom of the ancients, which now stand out like volcanic basalt exposed after centuries of erosion have washed all else away. For us to stand the test of time and have the greatest impact, we must thus spend our time within, applying the lessons of the ancients to our thinking, creating the conditions for well-ordered minds. Thus honed, reason becomes the tool for humankind to faithfully identify and avoid folly, and rather set its sights on building lives of substance.

Be well.

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